Whitehall is failing to learn Covid’s biggest lesson
Human Learning Systems is the type of bold and radical vision that “building back better” demands, and shows just how far the government’s own plans miss the mark.
Debates about how to run government and public services rarely run very deep. The promised inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic is almost certain to be a theatre of blame, recrimination and defensiveness on the part of the decision makers - entertaining, but avoiding bigger underlying questions about the role of government and how it can help citizens live better lives.
Last month saw the simultaneous publication of two visions for government, arising from very different perspectives. Michael Gove launched the grandly titled Declaration on Government Reform, which attempted to respond to the deep flaws that Covid exposed in the way Whitehall operates. The declaration identifies cumbersome processes, confused accountabilities and departmental silos as “shortcomings” to be addressed. It also, rightly, sets out plans for government to be more open to challenge and inclusive, and less London-centric.
Most would probably wonder why these kinds of ideas are presented as reforms at all
But be wary of promising reform while merely delivering a small dose of common sense. This felt like a somewhat belated statement of the obvious, and the very least we could expect of government - and indeed any modern organisation - in response to a time defined not just by the pandemic, but the Black Lives Matter movement. While no one would argue against mixed-disciplinary teams or investing in digital skills, most would probably also wonder why these kinds of ideas are presented as “reforms” at all.
The other core theme in the declaration revealed a telling leaning towards the status quo. The focus on data to drive performance improvements, measurable targets for delivery and rewards and bonuses is in fact winding the clock back a generation. Indeed, it reinforces exactly the type of Whitehall-knows-best mindset that continues to constrain the wider public sector’s ability to truly innovate and excel. The solutions presented are an odd mix of the obvious and the obviously wrong.
The pandemic’s biggest lesson of all, that the British state is too centralised, too controlling, and oblivious to the strengths that lie in local public services and communities was entirely absent from the analysis. So too was any sense of curiosity about an entirely different way of thinking about the role of government and public services could look like.
Gove need only have looked to the rapidly growing movement for change being led by public service workers, managers and leaders who know only too well why the status quo ‘markets, managers and metrics’ approach doesn’t work. Using experience-based insights and relationships with the people they are trying to help, their strong sense that there must be a better way to use public resources, and, indeed, their courage to do something different, they are building a different future for government from the ground up.
This powerful alternative is outlined in another report coincidentally published on the same day as Gove’s declaration. Human Learning Systems is about making public services responsive to the bespoke needs of the people they help, building relationships and trust, and creating an environment where improvement happens as a result of continuous and collaborative learning and adaptation by the many people and organisations who play a role in creating healthy outcomes. Human Learning Systems is not about linear chains of delivery or bringing a few more physicists into Whitehall: it is about listening, responding and learning through real collaboration. It responds to the real complexity of people’s lives and the challenges we face as a society, and so it is public service for the real world, not a pretend one in which a bit more data or a few red teams will cut it.
This new approach to public management is not purely theoretical, either. It is based on nearly 50 examples of public service organisations who are already putting it into practice across Europe. Indeed, Human Learning Systems is an active and growing movement of people who want public services to be more effective - better for the people they help, and better for the people who work in them. In short, it's the type of bold and radical vision that “building back better” demands, and shows just how far the government’s own plans miss the mark.
Anna Randle is the Chief Executive of Collaborate CIC.
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